Mining giant BHP has conceded it submitted an application to destroy Aboriginal heritage sites at its $5 billion South Flank iron ore project in the Pilbara, despite opposition from local traditional owners.
The WA Government granted approval to destroy dozens of sites just days after Rio Tinto destroyed 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.
BHP is the second major miner to appear at a federal parliamentary inquiry investigating Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient sites.
BHP today told the inquiry that representatives of the Banjima traditional owners “raised concerns in the field” ahead of the Section 18 application last October, and also wrote to the WA Government in April saying they were opposed to archaeological sites being damaged.
Section 18 of WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act legalises the destruction of Aboriginal sites, and the state’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt has since started a review of the act.
BHP’s David Bunting said the concerns were first raised when mine planners, heritage staff and traditional owners were in the field discussing the potential heritage impacts ahead of the company’s application.
“At that time the traditional owners raised their thoughts on the significance of those sites and also talked about mitigation around those sites,” Mr Bunting said.
However, he added the Banjima representatives said they did not object to the Section 18 application being lodged.
But in June, following the national backlash over the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves, BHP announced it would put plans to destroy 40 sites at the South Flank expansion project on hold.
The company also committed to reviewing all of its existing Section 18 approvals, and said it would not act on them without further extensive consultation with traditional owners.
The inquiry heard BHP has been granted 57 Section 18 permissions by the WA Government since 1975.
The company has since created a heritage advisory council with Banjima elders to give the traditional owners a greater say in operations.
“That’s why the heritage council we have set up is so important — because it provides a forum for an ongoing dialogue between BHP and the traditional owners after the Section 18 has been lodged,” Mr Bunting said.
BHP’s head of indigenous engagement Libby Ferrari said the company would have “possibly” done things differently with the benefit of hindsight.
“At the time we were working under the basis of the agreement and the consents that we had in place,” Ms Ferrari said.
She said the company was in “daily contact” with Banjima representatives over the South Flank project.
“We cannot get this wrong and we are absolutely committed to doing everything we can with Banjima to achieve that,” Ms Ferrari said.
Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (BNTAC) is yet to appear at the inquiry, but in its submission it said its experience with the mining industry had “not always been positive”.
It said there were no rights of appeal for traditional owners to Section 18 consent granted by the WA Government under the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
It also said the agreements negotiated between traditional owners and mining companies “effectively gag the signatory”, who is prevented from objecting to any Section 18 application.
“The reality is that in the past, traditional owners negotiating these contracts had no real choice but to take the deals that were offered or take nothing,” the submission said.
BHP’s Australian minerals president, Edgar Basto, said traditional owners would not be gagged from speaking publicly about any concerns they had about impacts on cultural heritage.
“If we become aware of new information that materially changes the significance of the site … we will not undertake any activity that will disturb those sites without the agreement with the traditional owners,” Mr Basto said.
“The chairman of the Banjima corporation and myself agree to together work on South Flank and identify and review those sites.”
WA’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy chief executive Paul Everingham told the inquiry the Juukan Gorge destruction had “upset a lot of people in the resources industry” in WA.
“There’s long been a sense of pride in both the relationships and the collaboration between traditional owners and those resource sector companies,” he said.
“The Juukan incident has shaken that sense of pride and belief around partnership with traditional owners.”
He said it would take a “fair amount of work” to rebuild faith and trust with traditional owners in WA.
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World news – BHP given green light to demolish Aboriginal heritage sites, days after Juukan Gorge caves destroyed